July 2, 2017: Proper 8A, Fourth Sunday after Pentecost: The Parish of Christ the Redeemer Pelham
Today’s Old Testament Lesson is one of the more challenging texts in the Bible.
The Church, almost from the beginning of Christianity, has stressed that this passage prefigures the Crucifixion. Through the lens of the Passion Narrative, Christian theologians, preachers, and liturgists, have argued that Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his only son Isaac foreshadows God the Father’s willingness to deliver his only Son to death on the cross. This interpretation is embedded pretty deeply in Christianity – this reading is and has been one of the options for the Easter Vigil prophecies.
I can see the parallels and Christians have highlighted even the minutia of the story – stuff like Abraham arriving on the third day, Isaac carrying the wood for his own sacrifice up the hill (get it: the cross was also made out of wood) – to support this interpretation.
At the end of the day, I’m always left troubled by the things that aren’t parallels.
Abraham is willing to sacrifice his only son because he is following a voice from heaven, whereas Jesus’ death on the cross is an act of love and reconciliation between God and a sinful world. I’m not sure that the big picture concepts match. If it really is a parallel with the Passion, I would expect Isaac to cry out to God: “Forgive this man, for he doesn’t know what he is doing!”
Another interpretation that I have difficulty with is that God is testing Abraham’s obedience. To be clear, this is the most obvious interpretation when you read the entire passage. The story doesn’t end with Abraham naming the mountain. It continues:
The angel of the Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven, and said, “By myself I have sworn, says the Lord: Because you have done this, and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will indeed bless you, and I will make your offspring as numerous as the stars of heaven and as the sand that is on the seashore. And your offspring shall possess the gate of their enemies, and by your offspring shall all the nations of the earth gain blessing for themselves, because you have obeyed my voice.”
From this perspective, he passes the test because he is obedient to God. I think that basically, the argument here is that Abraham knows full well that what God is asking him to do is contrary to every moral or natural law – and frankly what is asked is insane – and yet he still trusts that somehow God must have some reason for telling him to murder his only son.
“God told me to do it” has never passed mustard as a valid excuse for murder, or really anything at all.
It doesn’t come down to that – the angel tells him to stop at the last second – literally, he has the knife in his hand. But I still find such a test to be at least unsettling, and at worst morally repugnant and ethically unconscionable.
I majored in Philosophy in college, and I can tell you that Immanuel Kant, one of the fathers of modern philosophy had a field day with this passage and interpretation.
In his book The Conflict of the Faculties, Kant bluntly stated that “Abraham should have replied to this supposedly divine voice: 'That I ought not to kill my good son is quite certain. But that you, this apparition, are God--of that I am not certain, and never can be, not even if this voice rings down to me from (visible) heaven.”” (The Conflict of the Faculties p. 283n (Ak. VI1, 63))
I don’t’ think that the author of Genesis told this story with the intention of making God look demonic – that would be contrary to the rest of the book.
I also don’t think the author of Genesis is telling us to blindly follow voices from heaven without weighing the ethical and moral implications of our actions. That too would be contrary to the rest of the book – more on that in a moment.
Though it is embedded in our tradition, I doubt that the author was thinking ahead and planning loose parallels to a heavy-handed Atonement interpretation of the Crucifixion.
So what is my take on it?
“God tested Abraham.” I assume that the test that God is giving Abraham is whether he is willing to stand up for mercy and justice, even if it means standing up to God.
Might Abraham have passed the test by simply arguing – like he did on behalf of the people of Sodom and Gamorrah – that such a request is, unjust, unrighteous, and, frankly, ungodly?
If you place this reading in its context, you would know that Abraham was willing to stand up for justice and righteousness, even if it meant standing up against God.
Listen to this (from Chapter 18):
The Lord said, “Shall I hide from Abraham what I am about to do, seeing that Abraham shall become a great and mighty nation, and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed in him? No, for I have chosen him, that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice; so that the Lord may bring about for Abraham what he has promised him.”
Then the Lord said, “How great is the outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah and how very grave their sin! I must go down and see whether they have done altogether according to the outcry that has come to me; and if not, I will know.” So the men turned from there, and went toward Sodom, while Abraham remained standing before the Lord. Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” Abraham answered, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes. Suppose five of the fifty righteous are lacking? Will you destroy the whole city for lack of five?” And he said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.” Again he spoke to him, “Suppose forty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of forty I will not do it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak. Suppose thirty are found there.” He answered, “I will not do it, if I find thirty there.” He said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.” And the Lord went his way, when he had finished speaking to Abraham; and Abraham returned to his place.
So, I ask you, when God tested Abraham and said, “Take your son, your only son Isaac, whom you love, and go to the land of Moriah, and offer him there as a burnt offering on one of the mountains that I shall show you,” did Abraham pass the test by rising early in the morning, saddling his donkey and asking his only son to fetch wood for the burnt offering?
I think not.
He was willing to stand up to God for ten, theoretical, righteous people, but when it came down to one, for reasons that we are never told and perhaps will never understand, he doesn’t have the courage to reiterate that the God he believes in is Judge of all the earth and must do what is just.
I think he fails the test to see whether or not he will charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord bydoing righteousness and justice.
The fact that the angel tells him to stop at the last minute – at the last second! – actually helps prove my point. God never intended for Abraham to kill Isaac, and so it remains a “what if”. Yes, God blesses him for being obedient, but if you know Genesis, you know that Abraham had already received greater blessings, and you know that God has a habit of making lemons out of lemonade when it comes to human mistakes.
So, what is the moral of the story, so to speak?
I think it is that God charges those who would believe in him to do righteousness and justice, to charge their children and their households to do the same.
And life is a series of tests to see how far we are willing to go in the pursuit of mercy, love and justice, even if means standing up to a greater power or someone we love.